Coronavirus (COVID-19) support in low income households: evaluation

Qualitative research evaluating a range of policies and support that were delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research looks at how this support impacted on the finances and wellbeing of low income households.

2. Research aims and approach

This chapter sets out the research aims and questions, summarises the research approach, outlines the profile of the 60 people who participated and explains the structure of the remainder of report.

Research aims and objectives

The aim of this research was to explore the lived experience of low income households, especially families, during the COVID-19 pandemic and their perceptions about how the wide range of support available had impacted on their households' finances and wellbeing.

Based on participants' views, the research aimed to draw conclusions on whether the system has been working well for parents and other adults on low income and where they have experienced problems.

The specific research objectives were to:

  • Understand whether, and how, low income households are aware of the wide range of support that has been available to them, particularly cash based support
  • Explore how the wide range of support, and particularly cash based support, was obtained by low income households and how it helped them during the pandemic
  • Learn how the process of applying for or receiving support was perceived
  • Identify barriers preventing take-up of support for specific households
  • Identify gaps in support among certain types of households (specifically the child poverty priority families as well as those with protected characteristics, and whether there were specific gaps for those who fall into more than one of these categories)
  • Explore parents' perceptions of the perceived impacts of the support received for themselves, their children and potentially the wider family, especially in relation to wellbeing, social relations, financial stability and ability to comply with restrictions of the pandemic.

Research questions

The specific research questions for this study are set out below.

  • How do low income households say that they have been managing since the pandemic began and what are the key issues that they have been facing (in all areas of their lives, including in terms of wellbeing as well as financially)?
  • How did people become aware of the help/benefits? What sources of information were used?
  • How was the process of seeking/applying for help/support?
  • What are the enablers in accessing financial support/services?
  • What are the barriers in accessing financial support/services?
  • Who/what were key support pillars, specific people/services? How did this vary across different households?
  • Were there any other areas where they would have welcomed further support?
  • Was the financial support received used to maintain minimum living standards/pay for essential household bills or did it allow for other improvements (such as easing access to job market due to caring needs being covered, wellbeing improvements, or other?)
  • Were improvements attributed to the financial support/service or would they have happened anyway through other routes?
  • How did the support received help/hinder respondents to follow pandemic guidance (isolation, Test and Protect)?

Definition of low income

The research focused on adults and children who lived in low income households for at least some of the time from the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 to the time when the interviews were undertaken in October and November 2021.

Definitions of low income and poverty vary but the Scottish Government defines relative poverty as living in a household whose income, after adjusting for household size and composition, is below 60% of UK median income in the same year. Severe poverty refers to those with household incomes below 50% of the UK median income.[2] Building on this approach, this study differentiated between three measures of low income:

  • Moderate financial hardship – an income after housing costs of above 60% but below 70% of median household income.
  • Serious financial hardship – an income after housing costs above 50% but below 60% of median household income.
  • Severe financial hardship – an income after housing costs below 50% of median household income.

Some people that were interviewed had been in persistent serious or severe financial hardship for some years. Others had experienced fluctuations in their income, which had seen them move in and out of poverty and different depths of financial hardship during the pandemic. In addition, a few people had experienced a substantial income shock, such as becoming unemployed, that was enough to drive them into moderate, serious or severe financial hardship, typically for the first time (or the first time in several years). Where applicable, these dynamics and the impact on people's experience of financial hardship and poverty have been highlighted in the report.[3]

Summary method statement

The study was conducted between mid-September and December 2021.

Set up: The set up phase included:

  • Ten scoping interviews with key stakeholders. These stakeholders included representatives from the Scottish Government's Child Poverty and COVID Recovery teams and from seven third sector organisations. The focus was on informing the development of the sampling criteria for the main interviews
  • Development of sampling criteria. A number of sampling criteria were agreed. These covered: whether in one of the six priority groups for tackling child poverty; type of local authority area (urban, urban with substantial rural areas, mainly rural or islands and remote); gender; employment status; and age group of children
  • Development of other research materials. These included publicity materials, informed consent forms and the main interview schedule
  • Development of recruitment strategy. This included identifying and agreeing a number of organisations that would be asked to assist in recruiting people to take part.

Recruitment: The 60 participants were recruited through two main routes:

  • A number of third sector organisations, housing associations or community groups shared information about the study. These organisations or groups covered a broad range of areas across Scotland. The organisations approached included some which support particular groups of people and/or that are focused on tackling poverty. They shared information via email, newsletter or through Facebook posts. Around 25 participants were recruited using this approach.
  • Posts on a range of community Facebook pages. The Facebook pages were also selected to cover a range of different areas across Scotland. In total, the publicity materials were posted on 25 community Facebook pages. Around 18 of these posts led to one or more participant taking part. Around 30 participants were recruited using this approach.

In addition to these two main routes, a small number of participants got in touch after others (including people who had already been interviewed) shared information about the study.

In order to create as diverse a sample as possible, the aim was to recruit no more than three participants through any single route. In terms of the final sample, however, five participants were recruited by one third sector organisation and four participants by another. The group of five participants lived in the same city, but otherwise shared no particular characteristics. The group of four participants were all lone parents but otherwise had varied household circumstances.

Main fieldwork: Sixty semi-structured interviews were undertaken by members of the study team. Fifty-six interviews were conducted by phone and four by video call. Interviews lasted for between 30-75 minutes.

A summary of the interview schedule is provided at Annex B.

With the prior permission of participants, interviews were recorded. Forty seven participants gave permission for a recording to be made. If participants did not want a recording to be made, the interviewer took detailed notes.[4]

Analysis and reporting: Recordings and notes were used to produce a detailed write up of each interview.

These write ups were then analysed by two different members of the study team. An inductive content analysis approach was used and, in line with the qualitative nature of the study, the analysis focused on drawing out common experiences and key themes. The analysis also considered whether peoples' experiences during the pandemic varied depending on the profile of their household.

Research and analysis limitations: Although the sample size of 60 participants is substantial for a study of this kind, the qualitative nature of this study means it cannot be seen as a representative of a given population. Moreover, the personal characteristics and household circumstances of participants were diverse, meaning that any combination of circumstances typically applied to a very small number of participants. The findings cannot therefore be used to make generalised statements about those within specific groups, such as those with particular protected characteristics.

Participants were categorised by the three income groups (moderate, serious or severe financial hardship) by the study team. All 28 participants that said they were wholly reliant on income from 'state benefits' were assigned to the severe financial hardship group.[5] A further 27 participants were divided fairly evenly between the serious and moderate financial hardship groups based on their self-reported household income after housing costs. The other five participants declined to give this information. As a result, the income group categorisation is intended to be indicative only. It should also be noted that several participants moved between income groups during the period covered by the study.

Participants were largely self-selecting, either through responding to a social media invitation to participate or by contacting the study team after an organisation known to them shared information about the study. Given the routes to information sharing and recruitment, people who were entirely digitally excluded were unlikely to be recruited.

It should also be noted that 25 of the 60 participants were recruited through organisations that were known to them, including some third sector support organisations. This may have had an impact on the findings relating to the support participants received from organisations or groups with which they had an existing relationship.

Profile of participants

Information about the households of the 60 participants who took part in the study is set out below.

The information presented in the first two tables below covers unique characteristics i.e. each participant could only fall into one of the groups for each characteristic. It is based on circumstances at the point of interview.

Characteristic N Characteristic N
Household type Employment status[6]
Households with children 52 In work – full time equivalent or more 15
Couple 4 In work – part time 17
Single 4 Not in paid employment 28
Type of local authority[7] Ethnicity
Urban area 29 African, Scottish African or British African 3
Urban with substantial rural areas 13 Asian, Scottish Asian or British Asian 6
Mainly rural 12 South American 1
Islands and remote 6 White 48
Gender Prefer not to say 2
Woman 51
Man 7
Non-binary 1
Prefer not to say 1

Several other characteristics are set out in the table below. A participant's household could have a number of these characteristics or none of them.

Characteristic N Characteristic N
Age group of children Disability or neurodivergent condition
Pre-school 20 Disabled child(ren) or child(ren) with a neurodivergent condition 8
Primary 28
Secondary 22 Disabled adult(s) or adult(s) with a neurodivergent condition 13
Lone parent 29
Families with a baby under age of one[8] 18
Families with 3 or more children 14
Young mothers aged under 25[9] 8

Other points to note are that:

  • Participants lived across 16 different local authority areas
  • There were three households in which both at least one adult and at least one child was disabled or had a neurodivergent condition
  • Six participants lived in households in which all the adults had limited English.

Overall, 42 participants were in low income households that fell into one or more of the six priority groups identified as being at higher risk of child poverty. Twenty-one of these households fell into two or more of the six priority groups.

Report focus and structure

This report focuses on setting out what life has been like for the 60 people who took part in the study. It is centred around their experiences, as well as their views on what worked well or less well in terms of supporting low income households. It also sets out any suggestions that participants had about what might have been done differently or better.

The report includes direct quotes from participants. If quotes included names or places these have been omitted in order to protect the participant's anonymity. The report also includes eight case studies. These case studies are each based on the experience of one particular participant, but in each case detail has been changed in order to protect the anonymity of those taking part.

The remainder of the report is structured as follows:

Chapter 3 – Overall wellbeing and resilience considers participants' wellbeing and resilience since the pandemic began, in order to establish the general context and wider household circumstances within which participants received any COVID-related support.

Chapter 4 – Household resources and finances looks at how participants managed financially during the pandemic, the associated challenges they faced and the support or other factors that helped them cope. It also notes participants' suggestions about how things might have been done differently.

Chapter 5 – Childcare and education looks at participants' experiences of managing childcare and education, especially during lockdown periods and before full-time schooling returned. It sets out the types of support that parents found most valuable as well as some of their suggestions about what might have been done differently.

Chapter 6 – Employment looks at employment related issues, including how participants' work status or patterns changed and their experiences of being furloughed, working at home or outside the home, or being self-employed or running a small business. It also sets out participants' suggestions about what might have been done differently to support those in employment during the pandemic.

Chapter 7 – Getting information and support examines how participants accessed the information and support they needed to help them navigate the pandemic. It covers overarching learning about how participants accessed information, the barriers they encountered and what they thought would help going forward.

Chapter 8 – Conclusions sets out the main conclusions that can be drawn from the views of those who participated in relation to each of the ten research questions for this study.



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